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Jury Instructions – Medical Malpractice

August 5, 2020

In Davis v. Armacost, the Court of Appeals held that the trial court erred in giving the jury instructions based on general negligence that referenced the conduct of a “reasonable person,” rather than based on medical negligence that referenced physician defendant’s “similarly skilled peers.” The Court reasoned that this error heightened the duty that defendant owed to plaintiff and also invited the jury to disregard the opinions of the testifying experts.
The Plaintiff sued his neurosurgeon for malpractice and failure to obtain informed consent after issues with four-level anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery and subsequent infection.  At the conclusion of trial, the court gave its instructions to the jury.  Over Defendant’s objection, the instructions to the jury included an instruction on the general negligence concept of foreseeable circumstances which described how “a reasonable person changes conduct according to the circumstances and the danger that is known or would be appreciated by a reasonable person,” in addition to an instruction that described the terms of the standard of care that should be employed by a reasonably competent health care provider acting in similar circumstances.
In determining whether the trial court committed reversible error in giving the foreseeable circumstances instruction by heightening the duty owed by the neurosurgeon to the Plaintiff, the Court of Special Appeals reviewed the history of “standard of care” in medical malpractice cases and found a clear distinction, due to the specialized knowledge and skill of defendants.  Due to the specialized knowledge and special standard of care, expert testimony is essential in almost all medical malpractice claims to determine whether a doctor has been negligent.  The Court reasoned that by instructing the jury on the “reasonable person” rather than the accepted practice of the doctor’s peers, the trial court failed to account for a medical doctor’s specialized knowledge and skill and the physician was further prejudiced because the jury was allowed to disregard expert witnesses and impermissibly speculate as to how they themselves would have approached the Plaintiff’s surgery.
*In December of 2017, a Writ of Certiorari to the Maryland Court of Appeals was granted.  Updates will be posted as they become available.